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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 28 New Delhi July 2, 2016

Meaning of Yoga

Friday 1 July 2016

by S.N. Sahu

This article could not be used before June 21, the International Yoga Day. But it is being published now as its contents retain their validity.

Twentyfirst June has been declared as the International Day of Yoga at the initiative of our Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi. More than a decade back, in pursuance of Shrimati Sonia Gandhi’s initiative October 2, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, was declared as the Inter-national Day of Non-Violence. One of the foundational pillars of Yoga is non-violence which is inseparable from spirituality. Yoga minus non-violence is no yoga. A day dedicated at the international level for the cause of Yoga augurs well for the entire mankind in making more people aware of its profound significance some aspects of which are being followed by peoples across the globe for getting health benefits.

It was Swami Vivekananda who made the Western world know and realise the rich spiritual content of Yoga which is non-denominational and anchored on the vast infinite dimensions of the cosmos. Even though Mahatma Gandhi did not follow any Yogic practices, he with his phenomenal understanding of spirituality practised certain aspects of Yoga for regenerating our nationalism and making it constructive, liberating and all-embracing for the purpose of freeing India from British rule. One may ask as to how certain aspects of Yoga freed us from colonial rule and exploitation. The foundational pillars of Yoga are Satya (Truth), Ahimsa (Non-Violence), Bramhacharya (Disciplining of carnal desire), Aparigraha (Non-posession) and Astreya (Non-stealing). These are cardinal, sacrosanct and inviolable principles which are integral to Sanyasa (Renunciation) and without which none can make any progress on the path of spirituality. He made these principles part of his ekadash vrat or eleven vows1 by following which individuals would be able to first rule themselves on the basis of a disciplined body and mind and usher in self-rule for our country. Such larger vision of self-rule shaped by disciplining of mind, body and senses would result in a non-violent social and economic order which would be beneficial not only for our country but also the whole world.

The Divine Life Society (Divya Jivan Sangh), founded by Swami Sivananda in Rishikesh, celebrates Gandhi Jayanti on October 2 every year. The Society and its revered monks and devotees recall gratefully the phenomenal contri-butions of Mahatma Gandhi in applying the foundational principles of Yoga (Satya, Ahimsa, Brahmacharya, Aparigraha, Atreya) to the complex problems of politics, economics and society and, above all, for our liberation from centuries of foreign rule. On that day Dalits are invited to the sanctum sanctorum of the Divine Life Society and they are respected and honoured by the senior monks. On one such occasion, while speaking at the august gathering on October 2, Swami Nirliptananda said that during the freedom struggle Swami Sivananda was deeply impressed by Gandhiji’s method of struggle for freedom by applying the basic principles of Yoga and, therefore, he used to send a special emissary to Gandhiji to extend him his support. He also said that Mahatma Gandhi, by applying the main principles of Yoga to find solutions to intractable problems confronted by humanity, earned for himself the position higher than the position of all monks in the annals of spirituality. Swami Nirliptananda’s message on that occasion was that by following the central aspects of Yoga or Sanyasa Gandhiji launched the non-violent movement for freedom and indepen-dence and gave a much-needed moral dimension to our arduous struggle for liberation from colonial rule.

Our first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, in his book Discovery of India, reflected deeply on Yoga to underline the magnificent narrative associated with the ancient wisdom of our country. In his quest for understanding and exploring India’s rich cultural and civilisational legacy he reflected on Yoga in Discovery of India in the late 1940s to sensitise the younger generation about our invaluable spiritual wisdom which gives meaning and significance to material and sense-based life. He wrote: “The Yoga system of Patanjali is essentially a method for the discipline of the body and the mind leading up to psychic and spiritual training.” He understood its deeper meaning by writing that “... it is based on the psychological conception that by proper training of the mind certain higher levels of consciousness can be reached”. He added that “it is meant to be a method of finding out things for oneself rather than a preconceived metaphysical theory of reality or the universe”. Stating that “this old and typical Indian method of preserving bodily fitness is rather remarkable when one compares it with the more usual methods involving rushing about, jerks, hops, and jumps which leave one panting, out of breath, and tired out”, he could understand that it gave some degree of poise and composure to life and “an unruffled calm even while it exercises the body”.

Modern Western civilisation, which emerged following the industrial revolution in Europe, celebrated the possessive individual and, therefore, built a political, social and economic architecture to protect possessive instincts and qualities. The book Possessive Individual, authored by Professor Macpherson, read by generation of students in universities, very persuasively argued that the ideals of freedom, which included in their scope right to life, property, commerce, safety and security, were emphasised for enabling the individual to possess more and more and multiply wants and desires. In contrast, the enduring tradition of Yoga is based on non-possession and non-stealing. So while the modern era in the Western world took shape in celebrating the material exuberance, it did not adequately focus attention on the non-material or spiritual dimensions of life which are as important as the material dimensions. Yoga, by emphasising on non-material dimensions, actually restores the sanity and strength of life and gives the material dimensions the much-needed spiritual content.

David Brook in his insightful article ‘The Ambition Explosion”, published in the New York Times on November 27, 2014, thoughtfully observed that “the central illusion of our time is that career and economic success would lead to fulfilment in life”. In fact this “central illusion” guides us and allures us. We get mired deeper into this illusion. It does not mean that material attainments are to be discounted. It means that there must be some balance in life by blending them with non-material dimensions. It is Yoga which will make us realise the profound meaning of life the aim of which is to attain higher consciousness. Patanjali’s Astanga Yoga, the eight-fold path of Yoga, is a revolutionary prescription to usher in that higher consciousness which is the state of Samadhi where the consciousness is independent and much higher than the consciousness based on sensory experiences and material possessions. That kind of consciousness would coexist only with non-violence, non-possession and non-stealing. In other words, if we talk about Yoga and integrate it with the texture of life, we need to simultaneously talk and put into practice non-violence, non-possession and non-stealing. In other words, Yoga means a high level of consciousness, tolerance and acceptance. Otherwise it will negate non-violence which is one of the highest attributes of Yoga. By spewing hatred and venom on people just because they belong to Islamic or Christian faith we would negate the basic principles of Yoga. This all, embracing aspect of Yoga was very well explained by Sri Aurbindo in his scholarly book, Synthesis of Yoga, the very first sentence of which is: “All life is Yoga.” Sri Aurobindo, who did rigorous practice of Pranayam for more than two decades, could predict that human beings would evolve to attain transcendental consciousness.

Modern scientific explanations of Yoga have been found to be very fascinating and useful for addressing many complicated health problems. One study, conducted by Professor Elizabeth Blackburn, Nobel Laureate in Medicine for the year 2009, reveals that by doing Yoga and meditation the number and length of telomeres placed at the two end of chromosomes determining the youthful look can be sustained for long. Her study revealed that the youthful stage of life dependent on access to quality food and other material aspects is also greatly dependent on non-material dimensions which shape the mind and healthful and wholesome living. One such non-material aspect is Yoga, the constant practice of which can make the individual more youthful even as he or she may not have abundance of material facilities in life.

Yoga means no privilege based on differences of natural attributes even as it celebrates diversities and differences. Swami Vivekananda, who transmitted the philosophy of Yoga to the Western world, always underlined its ethical and meditative aspects to counter fanaticism and the monstrous materialistic greed. He stressed on the Himalayan quietness to pursue Yoga and spirituality.

Our judiciary has also underlined the significance of Yoga for dealing with complex criminal issues. The Supreme Court in several cases has prescribed Yoga for cleansing the minds of hardened criminals. On August 16, 1977 in the Hiralal Mallik vs. State of Bihar case, late Justice Krishna Iyer of our Apex Court described Yoga (transcendental meditation) as a science of creative intelligence to augment the moral tone and temper and prescribed it for changing the inner mind and character of a person who was convicted for murder. The honourable judge also observed: “Modern scientific studies have validated ancient Vedic insights bequeathing to mankind new meditational, yogic and other therapeutics, at once secular, empirically tested and transreligious.” Even the Supreme Court in Giasuddin vs. A.P. State observed: “There is a spiritual dimension to the first page of our Constitution which projects into penology. Indian courts may draw inspiration from Patanjalai sutra even as they derive punitive patterns from the Penal Code.”

The Indian Parliament has remained in the forefront in taking up the cause of Yoga right since its inception in 1952 after the first general elections. It was evidenced from the discussion on the Resolution moved by the first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, in the Rajya Sabha on December 16, 19522 for recording the general approval of the House of the principles, objectives, and programmes of development in the First Five Year Plan document. While participating in the discussion Dr W.S. Barlingay, representing the Indian National Congress, stated that health education would have to be given priority to address health issues and suggested that the ancient wisdom embedded in Yoga should be adopted and integrated with the scheme of health education for the whole country.3

The wider applications of Yoga in the modern period underline its pervasive and deep impact on every aspect of life. However, we should be mindful of the fact that Yoga woven around only some Asanas and breathing exercises without exploring its foundational principles narrows its scope. Those who never participated in the freedom struggle remained away from those foundational principles and are now using Yoga by consigning those very principles to oblivion. Such attempts will restrict the meaning of Yoga and reduce its infinite dimensions, representing the plurality of the cosmos, to a uni-dimensional attribute. High-decibel demonstrations for promotion of Yoga will rob it of its basic purpose to discipline senses and attain higher consciousness permeated by the values of non-violence, non-discrimination, selflessness, sharing, fellow-feeling and love. Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga included in its scope all Yogas—Bhakti (devotion), Gyan (knowledge), Dhyan (meditation) and Karma (duty) .

Yoga means higher consciousness which remains tuned to infinity and, therefore, is devoid of narrowness and sectarianism. Being non-denomi-national it is infinite in scope and, therefore, stresses on commonalities of all faiths. There is no scope in it for violent thoughts. It was Swami Vivekananda who prophetically wrote that the day mankind would discover and explore Yoga that day would be far more significant than the renaissance and reformation which gave birth to modern science and modern civilisation. His profound articulation that ethics is inseparable from Yoga makes us mindful of the ethical orientation and outlook which should precede the practice of Yoga. Any compromise on ethics would constitute serious compromise of Yoga. That is why in Raja Yoga exacting standards are prescribed and even it is cautioned that a Raj Yogi would become insane if he or she entertains sexual thoughts. In other words, a measure of emphasis is given on disciplining thought which Swami Vivekananda described as internal motion. The disciplining of the internal motion would lead to disciplining of external motion which the revered Swamiji said is manifested in action. So while celebrating the International Day of Yoga we need to be more ethical, more non-violent, less possessive, imbibe the values to share more and be more respectful to the faiths of others. In other words, we need to be more noble guided by cosmic consciousness which will broaden the mind and remove narrowness. Succinctly it captures in its scope the ideal of the Idea of India celebrating the confluence of civilisations and embracing the other.


1. Truth, Non-violence, Disciplining of carnal desire, Non-possession, Non-stealing, Bread labour, Control of palate, Fearlessness, Equal respect for all religions, Use of locally made goods and Removal of untouchability.

2. Rajya Sabha Debates, Volume II, December 16, 1952, Column no. 1961.

3. Ibid. December 17, 1952, Column no. 2186.

The author was an Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to late K.R. Narayanan when the latter was the President of India. He then served as a Director in the Prime Minister’s Office. He is now serving as a Joint Secretary in the Rajya Sabha Secretariat. The views expressed in the article are personal and have nothing to do with the Rajya Sabha Secretariat.

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